Thursday, July 8, 2010


Probably the number one thing that comes to mind when one mentions Plum Island is the dreaded greenhead, aka Tabanus nigrovittatus. A tabanid fly, in the same family as horse flies and deer flies, it is commonly found around coastal salt marshes in the Eastern US. The ones on Plum Island and in/around the Great Marsh generally are reputed to be the hungriest and most vicious of all. Folks from New Jersey might claim theirs are worse, but our greenheads' bad reputation goes back to Puritan times.

Early New England colonist William Wood describes greenheads in Chapter 11, Of the Evils and Such Things as Are Hurtful in the Plantations, of his New England's Prospect published in 1634. He has this to say about them:

There are likewise troublesome flies. First there is a wilde Bee or Waspe, which commonly guards the grape, building her cobweb habitation amongst the leaves: secondly a great greene flye, not much unlike our horse flyes in England; they will nippe so sore that they wil fetch blood either of man or beast, and be most troublesome where most Cattle be, which brings them from out of the woods to the houses; this flye continues but for the Moneth of Iune,...
Interesting that in Wood's time they came out in June instead of July.

Wood's book was supposed to be selling the English on the idea of coming here, yet the "great greene flye" features prominently in his list of evils of which potential settlers should be aware. Colonists came here anyway. I'm laughing as I write this because I once made a list of the reasons it is insane to live in Massachusetts and greenheads were right up there with traffic, lack of jobs, the price of avocados, and the unpredictable weather.

The other night I was listening to a podcast of Mark Lynch's interview with Pete Dunne about his new book Bayshore Summer on Inquiry (great show on WICN, Worcester). Hearing the two of them talk about greenheads was the best part of the interview. After listening to that, I put together a short list of greenhead-related links to fill you all in on all things greenhead.

From the news:

From the Rutgers entomology department: The Greenhead and You

On the North Shore, the topic of greenheads pulls ahead of the Red Sox and the weather for the month of July. Just the other night at Salisbury Beach with the family a lively discussion of how difficult it is to kill greenheads broke out among my nieces, two of the refuge summer interns, and my Mom. Ahh, summer.

And remember: no refunds on your refuge admission fee.

1 comment:

Hilke Breder said...

Now I know what those traps were that I saw sitting on the tidal marshes on Cape Cod. They must be very effective because I have never gotten bitten. Your report though on Plum Island makes me reconsider my plan to go there for a day trip.